Avoiding all social situations may not be possible, but learning to navigate your way around your fears can help.
Public speaking or not knowing anyone at a party are two common social situations that may make many people nervous. For some, though, these and other social circumstances can be terrifying.
Social anxiety is a formal mental health diagnosis. It involves experiencing intense fear, anxiety, and self-consciousness about being negatively evaluated by other people. But this anxiety is treatable, and it’s possible to manage the symptoms.
Anxiety refers to an intense feeling of fear or worry, often about something that has yet to take place.
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their lives, but it doesn’t always mean you live with the condition.
But when anxiety significantly impacts your daily life and the way you interact with the world, it’s possible you could have an anxiety disorder.
There’s more than one type of anxiety, though. Symptoms are often quite similar, but the root of the anxiety may differ.
When you experience anxiety unexpectedly or in more than one situation, you may be living with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
“Social anxiety [ … ] specifically refers to anxiety experienced in relation to social situations,” emphasizes Tynessa Franks, PhD, a clinical psychologist offering small-group therapy and classes for folks living with the condition.
Social anxiety isn’t the same as shyness.
“If a person is avoiding experiences that are meaningful or important in some way because of social anxiety, it starts to enter disorder territory,” says Franks.
Other features of social anxiety include:
- intense fear around social situations, often disproportional to the circumstances
- intense fear and worry about what others think of you and being perceived negatively
- physical symptoms that can involve rapid heart rate, dizziness, or hyperventilating
- a tendency to avoid all social situations due to fear
- persistent irrational thoughts about social situations, including being observed
- symptoms persist for more than 6 months
It’s possible to manage social anxiety. You can deal with anxiety at work, school, or social events by implementing a few tips. It might not happen from one day to another, but it’s possible.
Working with a mental health professional can help even more. They can help you explore the possible causes of your symptoms. They can also help you develop skills to face your fears without experiencing strong emotional or physical reactions.
1. Consider that your anxiety is a protective response
Anxiety can be informative. It may be trying to warn you of danger. In this sense, anxiety serves a purpose.
When you perceive a threat, your brain alerts you so that you can prepare to face or avoid said danger, explains Samantha Kingma, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Maricopa County, Arizona.
Remembering that anxiety is a natural and protective response could help you reframe the situation. Once you start experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, try to gently tell yourself that your body is protecting you, and now that you’re alert, you’ll be safe.
2. Facing your fears may help
Avoidance may feel safe, but it may not be helping you overcome anxiety. You may feel like you have to wait until you feel confident before facing your fear, but Franks says this may not work in the long run.
You may need to “flex those muscles” when it comes to reducing your anxiety symptoms.
“Many people falsely believe that confidence is the missing ingredient in their quest to improve their social anxiety and that once they feel confident, they will work toward change,” says Franks.
But taking small steps may be more effective. It doesn’t mean you have to step out into a large social gathering. But it could involve:
- checking out pictures of social situations
- imagining yourself interacting with two people
- connecting with a few friends or family members via video call
Working with a mental health professional who specializes in social anxiety can help you take your first steps. They may use techniques like systematic desensitization or progressive exposure. You’ll be able to discuss and face some of your fears in a safe environment.
3. Try the ‘worst-case scenario’ game
If you’re able to anticipate anxiety symptoms, consider asking yourself what’s the worst that could really happen.
“Often, we don’t realize what our anxiety is being driven by,” explains Kingma. “When we acknowledge and even say out loud our worst fear, we realize that they aren’t actually realistic.”
For example, if you feel anxious before a school day, think about the worst scenario. You may think something like, “I trip and fall in front of everyone. Everyone laughs at me. They tell me they never want to hang out with me again. Then, I have no friends.”
That may be your fear, but if you take it to the extreme, you may realize that some of it can happen, but it may not be logical to think all of it will.
At first, thinking about your worst fears may sound counterproductive, but it could help you assess the situation based on evidence and probability, instead of going by your irrational thoughts.
Additionally, you may find out that you possess the strengths and skills to handle the probable, realistic outcome.
“If you are feeling anxious about a presentation at work or school, identifying that you are most afraid of stumbling over your words or having others see you tremble can often take away some of the power of that fear,” Franks says.
4. Consider challenging negative self-talk
Have you noticed how you talk to yourself? Are you perhaps in the habit of putting yourself down? Identifying these thoughts can help you change them. Changing the way you think has a direct effect on how you feel and how you behave.
The first step is to examine your thoughts and identify when you say negative things to yourself. For example, “I’m so awkward,” or, “Everyone hates me.”
Once you do, try to replace the thoughts with more balanced thoughts that are grounded in reality.
- “I am wanted here, I have people who love and care about me.”
- “I am capable of enduring this stress.”
- “I have the power to leave anytime I choose to.”
- “I am choosing to spend time with safe, trustworthy people.”
- “Even if others are looking my way, I am perfectly fine.”
- “Others are most likely not paying attention to what I do. I am OK.”
“Eventually, the negative thoughts will not speak as loudly,” says Donna T. Novak, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Simi Valley, California.
5. Try to practice, practice, practice
Practice makes perfect, they say. And even though your mental health isn’t about perfection, practice can indeed help.
It may be important to remember to keep challenging your negative self-talk, reevaluating the worst care scenario, and facing your fears. Doing this only once or occasionally might not be enough.
Novak suggests giving yourself a deadline or break goals into smaller tasks to make things more manageable.
“Avoidance is truly the heartbeat of social anxiety. When you avoid a party, job interview, or difficult conversation because of your anxiety, you often feel a temporary sense of relief,” says Frank. “Avoidance only makes the social anxiety worse. The more you can challenge yourself to confront the situations that are anxiety-provoking, even in small steps, the better.”
6. Keeping in mind that every step counts may help
“Consider the small ways that you cope with anxiety during social interactions [these are known as safety behaviors] and see if you can slowly eliminate them,” Franks says.
Some of these safety behaviors may include things like:
- holding your glass tightly while talking with others
- looking away during a conversation
- going to the bathroom multiple times to check your appearance
- rehearsing your order before requesting food at a restaurant
Try to go slowly. There’s no need to pressure yourself into panic. You can start by identifying your safety behaviors. Then, you can pick one or two and try to engage in them less often.
Doing this will also help you see that even when you don’t rely on safety behaviors, you’re still safe.
Managing anxiety is possible. Living with social anxiety may be overwhelming, but you can also cope with it.
Working with a mental health professional, becoming aware of your safety behaviors, facing your fears more often, and changing negative self-talk can help.